Storying sustainability: the transformative power of narrative


My presentation to the joint UNESCO-University of Canberra Sustainable Landscape Futures Conference, 10-11 July 2014. A version with footnotes and bibliography is available from the author.

UNESCO’s Director General recently insisted that “Culture must be integrated in the post 2015 agenda, as a driver and as an enabler of sustainable development”. In this context, “culture” encompasses not only the fields of human endeavour we recognise as the Creative Industries, but also the sum total of our values, beliefs, lifeways, and tangible and intangible heritage. “Culture is who we are and what shapes our identity,” as UNESCO’s web site states.

Culture/s and identities can be understood by scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences as being constructed from and sustained by the stories people are exposed to, internalise and enact in their daily lives. The phenomena to be discussed at this conference – anthropogenic Climate Change and ecological degradation, for example – can thus be seen as the embodiment, reification and enactment of some of humanity’s most pathological stories. UNESCO’s call for “culture” to be integrated into “sustainability” implicitly acknowledges our many failures to counter such stories. But it also signifies a more sophisticated understanding of the scale and complexity of the cognitive and other challenges we face if we are to co-create “sustainable” societies.

Research in cognitive science, narrative psychology and related fields confirms that such change can only be precipitated by introducing new stories into communities’ repertoires, or by re-emplotting already familiar stories from different perspectives. Professional storytellers and scholars within the Creative Industries have a special role to play in this regard. It is time more of us worked with scientists, engineers and other experts to co-create stories that “work”.

I imagine that many people at this conference think of themselves as professional scientists, natural resource managers, engineers, hydrologists, economists, planners, designers, policy analysts, and/or academic scholars in other disciplines. I claim none of these professional identities. I’m a writer. A Creative. A teller of stories. And  from my point-of-view, you are all professional storytellers too.

I say this not to trivialise or devalue the important work you do, but simply to highlight the cognitive significance of stories or narratives, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, imaginary or ‘true’. All the books, reports, policy papers, powerpoints, hypotheses and equations you author, all the emails and letters you exchange, all the anecdotes memories and dreams you recount can all be defined as stories or narratives. (In this context, both terms can be used interchangeably.) We tell stories, we imbibe stories. We’re immersed in stories even from before birth. As literary theorist Barbara Hardy observed mid-twentieth century, ‘We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.’

More than this, stories can now be understood to be the ever-renewable cultural resources from which we co-create our social worlds, and co-create our ‘selves’, our subjectivities, or identities. This sense of who we feel we are in the world, our me-ness, is contingent upon the stories we are exposed to in our environments, and the stories we participate in through our social relationships, within the vastly complex narrative amalgams we call cultures. Amongst scholars working in this field there is now broad consensus that, as a species, we create the story that is ‘me’ by appropriating narratives from the communities we are part of, and by integrating our own ‘idiosyncratic experiences’ into them. Cognitive scientists, narrative psychologists, philosophers, linguistics and narrative theorists agree, in general, that ‘We become who we are through telling stories about our lives and living the stories we tell’. Our sense of who we are can thus be understood as ‘a dynamic state of always-becoming’.

Within this paradigm, both the individual and the social can therefore be seen as being continually constructed and reconstructed through the embodied social practice of narrative or storytelling, a process which enables us to ‘assume the common we of mutual recognition’, as philosopher David Carr so nicely expresses it.

We imbibe stories, accept, internalise and believe at least some of them, and reject others. If we accept and believe a story to be ‘true’, then we tend to enact or live it. Some of these stories are life-affirming and beneficent; others, as we know too well, are life-threatening and pathological. Whatever our professional identities, whatever our cultural backgrounds, or vocational callings, all of us here, at this conference, are working, in our own ways, to transform life-threatening stories into life-affirming ones. To change our cultures. To change our world. Because, like environmental historian William Cronon, we acknowledge that, ‘Within the field of our narratives we too – as narrators – are moral agents and political actors’.

And … the only way we can change any human collectivity – be it a family, an organisation, a city, town or village, a nation state, a religion, a culture, or a ‘civilisation’ – is by introducing new stories into these community’s narrative repertoires, or by re-emplotting already familiar stories from different perspectives.

Sustainable Development, or Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) as it was called in Australia, was itself a ‘new’ story for most of us way back in 1987 when the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, or the Brundtland Report. While our governments and industry leaders debated what ESD was and what it meant to them economically, civil society, including creative like myself, mobilised around this new story to effect change in our own communities. In the late 1980s I established a small organisation called Imagine The Future Inc. in Melbourne, for example – because, as our banner stated, we humans can only work for a future we can imagine … Through Imagine The Future, I also founded what I believe was the world’s first Ecoversity in the then-national headquarters of the Australian Conservation Foundation. I defined Ecoversity as a place to explore and exchange the ideas from which we’ll build sustainable societies. Other ecoversities have since emerged—at Bradford University in Yorkshire, for example—but tragically we have yet to create a truly ‘sustainable society’ anywhere on our planet!

Even in the 1980s and ‘90s many of we creatives knew that ‘sustainability’ called for radical cultural change. A reflective article I had published in 1990 was called Climate Change/Culture Change: A Meditation, for example. And yet, astonishingly, Culture, in any of the ways the word is used, was barely if at all mentioned in Our Common Future. In this iteration of the story, sustainable development was all about resources, material fixes, and economic development, rather than changing our cultures to create new more life-affirming relationships with one another and the non-human world. (Many practitioners soon acknowledged, however, that ESD had ‘four pillars’, environment, economy, society (social) and culture, even though UN and other literature referred to only the first three.)

The Millennium Development Goals introduced in 2000 was another ‘new’ story, or ‘old’ one told from different perspectives, around which millions of people have since mobilised to effect change. But again no mention of ‘culture’ or ‘cultures’, those diverse narrative amalgams we are immersed in, and from which we co-create ourselves and our communities.

But now, at last, nearly three decades after Our Common Future was first published, the United Nations system has at last officially recognised that Culture is, indeed, the ‘key to sustainable development’, as both ‘a driver and enabler of change’. As one recent UNESCO document tells us,

Culture, in all its dimensions, is a fundamental component of sustainable development. As a sector of activity, through tangible and intangible heritage, creative industries and various forms of artistic expressions, culture is a powerful contributor to economic development, social stability and environmental protection. As a repository of knowledge, meanings and values that permeate all aspects of our lives, culture also defines the way human beings live and interact both at local and global scales.

In this new generation of sustainability stories, culture is being acknowledged as the source of all the stories we live by, those ever renewable ‘raw resources’ with which imagine our pasts, presents and possible futures and from which we co-create our selves and our societies.

But stories are more than this. They enable us to make sense of the overwhelming complexity and chaos of life by ‘chunking’ it into biteable bits. From this perspective, narrative is ‘an instrument of mind’. I fear that we might have to wait another three decades before this ‘mind-narrative nexus’, as theorist David Herman calls it, is fully appreciated within the UN system, however!

So, to recap, storytelling is a defining characteristic of our species, a biological predisposition which confers upon us great evolutionary advantage. We co-create our collective and individual identities from the stories we’re exposed to, and we enact, embody, embed, reify and/or materialise the stories we’re part of to co-create our tangible cultural assets: all these buildings, roads, dams, irrigation channels, croplands, plantation forests, industrial and transport systems et cetera which we now depend on, along with all their consequences. Stories are also the tools with which we know or cognize world.

The etymological roots of our English words story and narrative suggest that this mode of representation has been understood as a way of cognizing the world for thousands of years. Linguists suggest that the Greek root, historía, which meant ‘learning or knowing by inquiry, history, record, narrative’, and by research, is probably derived from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning ‘to know, to see’.

The etymological roots of the word narrative —Greek gnosis, Latin gnarus and narro from the Sanskrit gna—similarly suggest that narratives have been understood as ways of knowing and understanding the world for millennia: the Sanskrit root Gna can be translated as ‘know’; and gnosis as ‘knowing through observation or experience’.

For most of the past two thousand years or more in European narratological traditions, however, stories, or narratives, have been theorised in much more limited ways: as representations of causally linked actions, or events, organized into Beginnings, Middles and Endings, through the device of a plot. This is what most of us now understand a story to be, and it’s the mode most of us use in our professional lives. By convention, even the densest scientific paper has an introduction, a middle of some kind, and a conclusion, or ending!

Orators, politicians, ideologues, advertisers, PR consultants and other propagandists, and most newspaper and magazine editors, film distributors and book publishers, love stories with nice neat Beginnings, Middles and Endings. And most readers and audiences do too, it seems, as sales of ‘formula fiction’ reveal. Readers and audiences tend to especially like stories in which all the narrative threads are neatly tied up into happy endings, because happy endings give them a dopamine reward, that warm and fuzzy feeling of complete satisfaction and empathy like an opiate high. Aristotle, one of the giants of Europe’s intellectual history, understood this even without knowing about the role dopamine and other neurotransmitters play in producing empathetic reactions, or the neurochemistry of the opposite emotions, the fear, xenophobia and hatred associated with the amygdala response which stories can also induce. He even wrote a manual for orators on how to persuade audiences to agree with them by arousing their emotions.

Which brings us back to the Creative Industries, that recently defined sector of the post-industrial economy which, as a professional creative, I’m said to be part of. We creatives know about inducing dopamine rewards and amygdala responses. As moral agents, we have a responsibility to induce the former rather than the latter in our work. To author inclusive, life-affirming, respectful narratives which inspire people to embrace diversity, difference and change rather than fear it. Stories that open up new pathways to ‘sustainability’ in engaging ways to counter those life-threatening narratives which have led us to anthropogenic Climate Change, ecological degradation, species loss, impoverishment, violence, discrimination, and all the other social pathologies now threatening human and non-human communities.

Many of we Creatives would like to work collaboratively with other professional storytellers such as yourselves: with sustainability scientists, natural resource managers, engineers, economists, planners, designers, policy analysts, and academic scholars in other disciplines as yourselves. We’d like to collaborate with you to co-create new sustainability stories, or to re-emplot already familiar ones from new and astonishing perspectives. To work with you to change our cultures. To change the world. And now that culture and the Creative Industries are at last being formally ‘integrated’ into the Post-2015 development agenda, I respectively suggest that you need us!

I’ve been developing what can loosely be called sustainability stories for decades now. A few years back I founded the Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival in Forbes, my home town, as a celebration of country creativity and resilience after a decade of drought, for example. The headline act was the world premiere of a chamber opera, The Kate Kelly Song Cycle, I co-created with composer Ross Carey, based on a very familiar local story about bushranger Ned Kelly’s sister Kate who spent the last twelve years of her life in and around Forbes. I told it from radically new perspectives, however, to include the voices of people who tend to be omitted from mainstream narratives in inland New South Wales, and to acknowledge our dependence on the now endangered ecosystems of the Kalari-Lachlan River.

From my perspective, the Song Cycle is a sustainability story, as is the biennial Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival itself. Both of these interconnected projects now have lives of their own: the Song Cycle is likely to be performed professionally in Australia and overseas in 2015, and the Festival continues to grow and evolve as both a community celebration of country creativity and resilience, and as an opportunity for all those of us concerned about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Catchment, and the Kalari-Lachlan River in particular, to integrate culture into new sustainability initiatives to enable and drive change. Because, as we have seen, ‘Culture, in all its dimensions, is a fundamental component of sustainable development.’

I’m now developing new sustainability project, and looking for new project partners … So, if you’d like to talk with me …

To end, I’d like to show you a clip from Songs For Kate, a documentary about the making of the Kate Kelly Song Cycle by filmmaker Tracy Sorensen, as an example of how we Creatives work in communities to effect change.

Full conference program >>


Page created 6 July 2014. Last updated 4 August 2014.